HONG KONG — Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said Wednesday that the government would withdraw a contentious extradition bill that ignited months of protests in the city, moving to quell the worst political crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese control 22 years ago.
The move eliminates a major objection among protesters, but it was unclear if it would be enough to bring an end to intensifying demonstrations, which are now driven by multiple grievances with the government.
“Incidents over these past two months have shocked and saddened Hong Kong people,” she said in an eight-minute televised statement broadcast shortly before 6 p.m. “We are all very anxious about Hong Kong, our home. We all hope to find a way out of the current impasse and unsettling times.”
Her decision, which was met with skepticism by some pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, comes as the protests near their three-month mark and show little sign of abating, roiling a city known for its orderliness and hurting its economy.
It also came as something of a surprise: Just a day before, China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office had signaled an uncompromising stance toward the protests. Yang Guang, a spokesman for the office, said at a briefing in Beijing that there could be “no middle ground, no hesitance and no dithering, when it comes to stopping the violence and controlling riots in Hong Kong.”
a group of people sitting in front of a store: Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, gave a televised statement on Wednesday in which she said she would withdraw the contentious extradition bill.Next SlideFull screen1/3 SLIDES © Lam Yik Fei for The New York TimesHong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, gave a televised statement on Wednesday in which she said she would withdraw the contentious extradition bill.
A possible hint of a change in Beijing’s stand, however, came from the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. In a speech on Tuesday to the Party School of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Mr. Xi called on rising party officials to show resolve for a long struggle but suggested that the leadership could adjust its tactics to achieve its aims.
“On matters of principle, not an inch will be yielded,” Mr. Xi said, “but on matters of tactics there can be flexibility.”
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?” suggested on Wednesday evening that Beijing had asked Mrs. Lam to make the decision as a tactical calculation ahead of the Oct. 1 anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
The aim, he said, was “to calm down the movement’s moderates” and “weaken and isolate the radicals.”
“Maybe it is a good calculation on the part of Beijing,” he added, “but it may also fail.”
Mrs. Lam had suspended the bill in June and later said that it was “dead,” but demonstrators have long been suspicious of her government’s refusal to formally withdraw the bill and feared that it could be revived at a later date.
Withdrawal of the bill, which would allow extradition to mainland China, has remained at the top of the list of protesters’ demands. But the list has grown to include an independent investigation into the police response, amnesty for arrested protesters and direct elections for all lawmakers and the chief executive.
Michael Tien, a moderate pro-Beijing lawmaker, said withdrawal alone might have been enough to calm the protests in mid-June. But since then, “with the accumulation of so much resentment, so many accusations and so many disputes,” the establishment of an independent inquiry “is 100 percent necessary,” Mr. Tien said.
At least some of the hard-line, pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong expressed skepticism on Wednesday evening about Mrs. Lam’s overture, seeing it not as a clever gambit to ease pressure but rather as a sign of political weakness that would only encourage further protests.
One hard-liner, who insisted on anonymity because of political sensitivities, said that the initial hostility to the overture from democracy advocates showed that the hard-liners worries about concessions were being vindicated.
A controversial extradition bill sparked weeks of protests in Hong Kong by demonstrators calling for democratic reforms.
(Pictured) A protestor hurls back an exploded tear gas shell at police officers on Aug. 31.
Photo gallery by photo services
Mrs. Lam described the withdrawal as a step to initiate dialogue. She also said she would add two members to an existing police review board, but that step was far short of calls for an independent investigation.
Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, described Mrs. Lam’s announcement as a “political performance.”
“That it took her three months to formally use the word withdraw is truly too little, too late,” Ms. Mo told reporters. “A big mistake has been made.”
This summer has seen peaceful marches involving hundreds of thousands of people, as well as street protests by smaller groups who have become increasingly violent in recent weeks, throwing bricks and firebombs at the police. More than 1,100 people have been arrested since early June. The police, who have used batons, rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters, have faced allegations of excessive force.
Months of protests have started to ripple through the economy, hurting some small businesses and the tourism industry. Many economists believe the city’s economy is now slipping into recession.
Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index closed up 3.9 percent on Wednesday as the prospect of Mrs. Lam’s news conference began circulating. Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based airline that has faced criticism from the Chinese government for its employees’ participation in the protests, climbed more than 7 percent. After the market closed, the company announced the resignation of its chairman.
Withdrawal of the extradition bill was the initial demand of protesters, and the rallying cry when, by organizers’ estimates, more than one million people marched on June 9 and nearly two million marched a week later, more than one in every four people in Hong Kong.
Withdrawal of the bill “will help to an insignificant extent,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies.
The concession “might pacify a small sector of the population but it will not have any impact on whether the waves of protests would subside,” he added.
On LIHKG, an online forum popular with protesters, several posts on Wednesday repeated longstanding calls not to compromise until all demands are met.
Full withdrawal of the extradition bill has long been seen as the easiest compromise that the government could make. But mainland Chinese officials had objected to that possibility, saying that doing so would suggest that the original intentions behind the legislation were mistaken.
Chinese officials had also said that any independent inquiry into the police’s conduct and other aspects of the unrest could not be started until the protests died down.
Over weeks of protests, state news outlets and other commentators on the mainland unleashed scathing criticism of the protesters, portraying them as rioters and, in some cases, suggesting they were traitors or terrorists. One analyst said Beijing may have been motivated to allow a concession in order to begin reining in the nationalistic rhetoric to some degree.
“Beijing loves the nationalistic sentiment, but only to the point that it’s controllable,” said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “At some point Beijing wants to rein that in for fear that these nationalistic sentiments will point toward the government.”
As the protests dragged on, pro-Beijing lawmakers had expressed concern that the anger at the government would hurt their camp in district council elections in November and legislative elections next year.
Saturday, the fifth anniversary of a decision by China’s legislature to put limits on direct elections in Hong Kong, saw some of the most intense clashes since the protests began. After a march by tens of thousands, some protesters gathered around the main government offices, hurling rocks and firebombs. Riot police fired tear gas and pumped blue-dyed water from trucks at protesters.
Protesters built barricades and set fires, and the police later pursued them across several neighborhoods, arresting dozens. In a subway station in the Prince Edward neighborhood, officers from the police’s Special Tactical Squad entered a stopped train, hitting people who were crouching on the floor with batons and dousing them with pepper spray.
The Chinese government was initially silent on this summer’s protests, then began to condemn them in increasingly strident tones, warning that the military could be called in. Images of Chinese police officers and paramilitary troops conducting anti-riot drills in Shenzhen, a mainland city near Hong Kong, were given regular coverage by state media outlets.
On Friday, the police in Hong Kong arrested several prominent activists and three pro-democracy lawmakers as a crackdown on the opposition intensified.
Ezra Cheung and Amy Qin contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Keith Bradsher and Steven Lee Myers from Beijing.